For the nth time the debate over development versus environment has assumed an overnight stridency due to the widespread cracks in homes and roads in Joshimath, the small town nestled in Chamoli district in the Uttarakhand hills. The town is an important gateway to the holy pilgrimage sites of Kedarnath-Badrinath and Hemkund Sahib for the devout Hindus. Last week the town’s 25,000-odd residents were thrown into panic when scores of homes developed cracks while several hotels and homestays tilted dangerously due to land subsidence. Several families were shifted to temporary structures following cracks in the walls of their houses due to landslides. Also, at several places the road parted as water gushed out, causing fears of further land subsidence. In short, Joshimath has become unsafe for human living. The local administration has had to set up temporary relief and rehabilitation camps for families evacuated from the affected areas. The irony is that the panic situation did not come as a surprise to anyone, for it had been long in the making. The clear culprit is the controversial decision to build a hydro-dam, an all-weather highway and add to it reckless exploitation of the region for private commerce and tourism.
That Joshimath falls in the high-risk seismic zone V did not seem to deter anyone in the Government or in the private sector from exploiting its rich natural beauty for commercial ends. Security concerns prevailed with officialdom to sanction a highway right up to the border with China. Even the higher judiciary nixed the opposition of the environmental activists who protested the cutting of trees and clearing of hilly terrain to pave the way for the road-widening. Pointedly, long-time residents blamed the public sector National Thermal Power Corporation for its Tapovan-Vishnugad 520-megawatt hydropower project. Construction of the 12-kilometre-long underground tunnel had resulted in water seeping out from under the earth at several places, though the authorities now claim that the problem had been rectified. A geotechnical survey ordered by the state Government only a few months ago warned that the foundation of Joshimath is unstable as it stands on a thick cover of landslide material which can collapse due to heavy rain, tremors, unregulated construction etc.
Without doubt, what is happening in Joshimath is not unique since depredation of environment is a common occurrence wherever pressures of population have led to expanded human activity, denuding forests and other natural endowments. Though the debate over development versus environment cannot be settled with a single winner emerging, at least the authorities owe it to people that reckless abuse of nature does not endanger human lives and private property. Striking a fine balance, especially when key security concerns assume primacy, as in the case of the all-weather road through the Badrinath hills, is not always easy. Yet, Governments can draw salutary lessons from the Joshimath crisis, and henceforth keep all heavy construction activity to the minimum possible in order to protect people from the aggressive expansion of economic activity in hitherto virgin terrain.
Let us admit that it is humanly impossible for the police to be everywhere wherever a crime may take place. But at least they can act with due despatch when a crime is brought to their notice. Unfortunately, even when public-spirited citizens inform them of some gruesome incident, they are thoroughly lethargic and take their time to act. This was the case with the young woman in Delhi recently when she was dragged by a fast-moving car for nearly 10 km after getting caught under the vehicle following an accident.
It is a shocking indictment of the police that the deceased’s friend riding pillion on her two-wheeler, who escaped with minor injuries, did not alert them for fear of harassment. That it took two hours for the police to locate the body of the victim highlights its lackadaisical approach. No lessons were learnt even after several such high-profile cases involving young women in the national capital. Women still do not feel safe after dusk in several far-flung parts of the city. Admittedly, the place where the accident took place was poorly lit. Besides, the driver in the private car and co-passengers were all drunk, though the victim too, according to her friend who survived the accident, was intoxicated that night. But that does not in any way mitigate the failure of the police to act immediately once informed of the crime.